Last Thursday night in Houston, not 24 hours after the Rockets had pulled off a totally unexpected 111-107 April Fool's Day number on the defending NBA champion Lakers at The Forum in the first game of their best-of-three playoff mini-series, Houston Forward Robert Reid was entertaining L.A.'s Magic Johnson at his apartment. "We ate dinner, then we sat down and watched a movie and talked about almost everything except basketball," Reid would recall. "But the whole time I just wanted to look across at him and say, 'You know we're gonna kick your asses, don't you?' "
Three days later, again in The Forum, Reid's unspoken prophecy came to pass. The winning basket in Houston's 89-86 series-clinching victory was a 16-foot jumper by 6'3" Mike Dunleavy with 15 seconds to play, but a missed shot and a follow on an offensive rebound by 6'10", 235-pound Moses Malone or 6'11", 240-pound Billy Paultz would have been more apt, more typical of the way the Rockets bruised the Lakers. And when the horn had sounded, there was no call for Reid to rub it in on his friend Johnson, because Magic already had more than his share of troubles.
The Rockets, a 40-42 team in the regular season, weren't supposed to be any problem for L.A., but as the playoffs got under way the Lakers were having a hard time getting their act together. They had lost their last two regular-season games, and stories were circulating that some L.A. players were less than enchanted with the ballyhooed return to the lineup of Johnson, who had missed 45 games following knee surgery. Norm Nixon, who went from shooting guard to point guard and then back to shooting guard, was quoted as saying the changes were disruptive to his game. Other reports indicated that several Lakers were jealous over the media attention given Magic's comeback.
Johnson was crushed by the talk, and he stayed up until five the morning after the first-game loss to the Rockets in a state of bewilderment. "I try to give everybody the ball, keep everyone happy, but I guess it's never enough." he said. "I never heard of this kind of situation on a winning team. Everybody can't get the pub. Before me it was Kareem, and if they weren't getting it then, I don't know how they could want it now. Everybody on a championship team doesn't get publicity, but everybody can say he's a champion."
If any team were ideally suited to play Los Angeles, Houston was it. The Lakers held just a 3-2 edge over the Rockets during the season, one of Houston's wins being a 110-107 triumph in L.A. And according to Rocket Coach Del Harris, his team's weakness against other clubs was actually an asset against the Lakers. "We don't have a true power forward on our team," said Harris. "Moses is a center and so are Paultz and Major Jones. The rest of our guys are small forwards and guards. So when we play a team that uses two centers, as L.A. does with Kareem and Jim Chones, we end up with an advantage."
The Lakers rely on Abdul-Jabbar and Chones to control the defensive boards and throw outlet passes that their streaking teammates can convert into easy fast-break baskets. But with Malone and Paultz crashing the boards along with the 6'8", 210-pound Reid, the Rockets curtailed L.A.'s opportunities to break. In each of their five meetings this season Houston outrebounded the Lakers. On the offensive boards Malone beat out Abdul-Jabbar, Chones, Johnson and Jamaal Wilkes combined.
That pattern held up in Game 1 of the mini-series. Malone scored 38 points and had 23 rebounds; Paultz added 15 and 10. Overall, the Rockets held a 55-46 edge in rebounds, which took the Lakers out of their up-tempo game. After taking a 6-4 lead at 10:04 of the first quarter, Houston never trailed. Malone did the most damage, not only inside but also on 15-foot jumpers that the Lakers dared him to shoot. Los Angeles threatened in the final five minutes but couldn't close the gap to less than three as Abdul-Jabbar missed two free throws, committed a turnover and, the ultimate insult, had a dunk attempt stuffed by one Bill Willoughby. "After I got his stuff, then everybody started jumping around trying to get Kareem," said Willoughby, who used to be nicknamed Poodle and until recently was thought to have more bark than bite.
Johnson offered a suggestion to Abdul-Jabbar at the Lakers' practice the next night. "The next time Willoughby tries that, break his arm," he said, but L.A. Coach Paul Westhead, who, like Johnson, had stayed up late after the loss Wednesday night, had other ideas. To keep Malone off the offensive boards Abdul-Jabbar would concentrate on backing him away from the basket. If, instead of Abdul-Jabbar, Chones or anyone else was guarding Malone, that Laker would keep his back to the basket and face Houston's big man, conceding the rebound to someone else but also keeping Malone away from it. In addition, there would be help from the top side guard and strong side forward, who, along with the man guarding Malone from behind, would form a collapsible zone to restrict his movement whenever the ball came his way.
Harris didn't work up such exotic strategies for the Rockets, instead concentrating on winning the battle of players three, four and five. "Every team has a pair of top players, but it's the third man down who wins or loses games," he said. "Kareem and Magic are going to get theirs, just like Moses and Calvin Murphy will for us. But what happens with Paultz and Chones, Dunleavy and Nixon or Reid and Wilkes, that's the key."
Nixon outscored Dunleavy 22-8 in the opener, but Reid had 13 points and nine rebounds to Wilkes' 16 and none, and the Rockets' bench outscored the Lakers' 31-10. Nineteen of those points came from Houston's instant offense. Murphy, who averaged 17 points in 26 minutes a game after becoming the sixth man 12 games into the season. "If a guy doesn't like being the sixth man, you can see it in the way he drags himself to the scorer's table," Harris said. "With Calvin you have to give him instructions in the same breath that you call him into the game because he's gone."
The Rockets' win in Los Angeles even piqued the interest of folks in Houston. Now that the team had attracted national attention with a stunning upset on national TV, the Rockets, generally looked down upon as poor cousins to the Oilers and Astros, suddenly became the city's darlings. By noon Friday 16,121 tickets had been sold to that night's game at The Summit, insuring the largest single-game crowd in the franchise's 14-year history. But total NBA sophistication had yet to reach Houston. An hour before game time scalpers were only asking $25 for $13 seats, a markup that's chicken feed in L.A., while inside The Summit a sign taped on a wall read, "Moses puts Karem in the shade."
But such gaucheries mattered little to the Rockets' personable and ebullient boy owner, Gavin Maloof, 24, who exclaimed before the game, "If we take 'em tonight it will be the biggest thing to ever happen in...in...in HISTORY!!!"
Alas, history was put on hold for a while. Westhead had saved his most important ploy until just before game time, when his sixth man, Michael Cooper, was introduced as a starter instead of Chones. With Cooper at guard and Johnson moved to forward in the Lakers' "greyhound lineup," the pace quickened at both ends of the floor. Harris reacted by putting Malone on Cooper defensively, but that worked to the Lakers' advantage. As Cooper scurried about outside with Moses in tow, L.A. jumped to an early 18-5 lead.
Yet the Rockets hung tough and cut the Laker lead to 96-93 with 5:06 to play. The Rockets' fans could be excused if they thought that things were then well in hand. Fourteen times this season Houston won games after being tied or trailing at the start of the fourth quarter, a feat equaled only by Boston. As the staggering Lakers called time out, the crowd in The Summit stood en masse, cheering for the 15th and creating such a din that Harris had to yell in his players' ears when he gave instructions.
That noise doubled when Johnson fouled out with 2:53 to play and the Rockets down three, 100-97. It took the crestfallen Magic, who had a career-high 18 rebounds, more than a minute to leave the court, and when he did, he stood with his hands on his hips while his teammates huddled to his right. Across from Johnson, Lakers' owner Jerry Buss also stood dejectedly, hands on hips. No wonder. Buss figured that at $125,000 per home-game gate plus other playoff income the Lakers could lose close to $3 million if they were eliminated early. Or, as Laker publicist Bob Steiner said, "With what we'd lose, we could pay Kareem's salary."
But as Westhead had said before the game, only lesser teams see the writing on the wall. Nixon, who scored 21 points with 11 assists, made a three-point play after that time-out, and the Lakers held on for a 111-106 win.
That put the odds in the Lakers' favor for Sunday's game in L.A. Before the Rockets' Wednesday night win, Houston's record at The Forum had been an abysmal 5-29. Even more important, Los Angeles was relaxed after Friday's back-to-the-wall victory. "Now we can play in our comfortable rhythm." Westhead said. "When it's do or die, you're in a need rhythm, and that's not our best."
Both teams had trouble sustaining any kind of rhythm during the final game, mainly because of crashing bodies—53 fouls were called—and poor shooting, 39% for Los Angeles, only 34% for the Rockets. Johnson had a particularly rough time, going two for 14 from the field and six for 11 from the line.
With the score deadlocked at 85-85 after seven ties and 16 lead changes, Johnson, lacking his magic touch—or for that matter any touch—missed the first two free throws in a three-to-make-two situation. After Johnson hit the third to put L.A. up 86-85, Houston called, time out. The idea was for Murphy to put up the shot and for Malone to crash the boards if there was a rebound, but when Calvin received the ball from Dunleavy two Lakers pounced on him, so he whipped a pass back to Dunleavy, who didn't hesitate in putting in the shot.
The Lakers still had one more opportunity to stay alive, and they decided to rely on Magic. Johnson brought the ball up the length of the court against Tom Henderson, spinning into the lane for a driving jumper that became an air ball. "It was just one of those things," Magic said afterward. "I could say I got hit on the drive. I did get hit on the elbow when I shot, but I held back and didn't follow through."
Three seconds later the Rockets had their upset. No one was more appreciative than Murphy. "For 11 years I've struggled with this franchise," he said, champagne streaming down his face. "I want everyone to know that I am a Houston Rocket."
Around the corner, Buss met West-head in the corridor outside the Los Angeles dressing room. They stood silent for 30 seconds, heads nodding. Then Buss broke the heavy silence. "We'll talk, huh?" "Yeah, sure," said Westhead.
Buss turned to a pair of writers the coach had been talking to. "You guys finished here?"
They were. So were the Lakers.